Tuesday, April 6, 2010
After my recent reread of Heinlein's Double Star, I couldn't resist revisiting John Varley's The Golden Globe.*
Like Star, Globe is about a down on his luck actor. Kenneth "Sparky" Valentine made his nut on Luna as the kid star of a kid show. Right as Valentine is transitioning into adult roles, he is entangled in a crime and forced to run to the outer planets, where he works under a series of assumed names and in increasingly tenuous circumstances. Along comes the chance to play Lear and Sparky plots a trip back to where he is most wanted.
Both Valentine and Heinlein's Smythe are self-centered enough to almost have tangible gravity wells. Both are convinced that they are the best actors who ever trod the boards. Both have a lot of growing up to do. And one is certainly a nod to the other.
Both Varley and Heinlein have distinctive voices that are built on concise but somehow also lyric prose. Both create universes that feel lived-in. Both wrote (and write, natch) books whose worlds interlock, either through characters or events. And one certainly absorbed much about the field and the craft from the work of other.
While there are many, many similarities, the stories couldn't feel more different. Smythe's path is relatively straightforward. Valentine's twists and doubles back and redoubles again. Varley has given Valentine a believable back-story about the abuse his father heaped on him and how that abuse shaped the damaged man he became. And the world that Varley created is rich with engaging detail that almost leaps off of the page. In many ways, it feels like he's just reporting from an already existing future, rather than one that he's making up as he goes along.
My only problem with Globe is that Valentine is so fully imagined and drawn that it feels as if he stole narrative control away from Varley, which is high praise and a criticism. Valentine's love of his own words takes over when he describes how to jump a freight ship or run a short con. Varley might have been well served to remind his creation that less is frequently more.
Some other thoughts:
1) I commented earlier that acting is a craft that won't be influenced by technological developments. In Globe, Varley has proved me wrong. Valentine's gizmos that let him change his appearance from his bones outward might be the next big theatrical tool.
2) This is a selfish want but I want more books with Hildy, who is one of my favorite characters ever. Not just in Varley's work, mind. My love for Hildy crosses all borders. And, yes, she shows up in Globe.
3) I suspect there is an entire dissertation on the occurrence of magical luggage in speculative fiction.** Here it's the Pantech, an actor's trunk that is full of surprises. Examples include now the Pantech, Rufo's folding box and Pratchett's the luggage. What am I missing?
4) I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Varley's Heinleiners, the Lunarians who have given up on the city and moved outside of the domes to set up their own very loose society of make-do-and-menders. Their one shared goal is to go to the stars. In Globe, they might just get there.
5) I have a degree in theater and spent a good decade working behind the curtains. Varley is one of the few writers who nails all of the details of that life. Heinlein tried, mind you, and covered up with hand waving what he didn't have experience with. But Varley captures all of the tangible and emotional truths of the life that others gloss over.
* My fingers insist on typing this as "The Golden Glob," which would be a great SF novel as well.
** In Southern and Gothic fiction, there's been a number of papers about the appearance of the white mule. Magical luggage seems not that far removed and entirely more practical.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Since Heinlein's death -- actually, well before he died but the situation became more acute post-mortem -- the genre has been trying to find the writer who will replace the Grand Master. Various names have been bandied about. Spider Robinson has long been a contender and was tapped to finish, Variable Star, a partial manuscript Heinlein left behind. Charlie Stross's Saturn's Children was an homage/pastiche/tribute of Heinlein's Friday. John Scalzi's Old Man's War books get dropped in the Heinlein hopper as well, if only because they capture RAH's clear prose and smart heroes.
Admittedly, it's a silly task, this trying to find someone who will give readers the same experience as one of the field's icons. Writing in another person's style is akin to wearing another person's underpants. It's unsettling and uncomfortable on a number of levels.*
But if I had to anoint one current writer as the one who captures that feeling I get when I read Heinlein, I would drip the oil on John Varley's forehead.
I have read Steel Beach more times than I can count, frankly, and love it more each time. Ditto The Golden Globe. My abiding affection for these books comes not from their Heinlein-ness but from their Varley-ness, whose work has a singular voice that hits all of the best notes of Heinlein's work while investing it with a greater sense of human failings and modern panache.
This carries into Varley's last three titles -- the Red Thunder, Red Lightening, Rolling Thunder series -- that are clear hat-tips to Heinlein's juveniles without ever attempting to imitate them. Varley knows that a wide number of his readers will get all of the Heinlein references** but doesn't let them stand in the way of spinning his adventure stories that rely both on the moxie of his young heroes and on the reader's knowledge of the last 30 years.
So while I wait for Varley to publish his next book, whose work do you think captures the Heinlein voice and ethos while still maintaining their own voice and ethos? And do you think it is fair to label any given writer "the next Heinlein?"
* Some of those titles succeed because the writers in question never tried to bend their voice into a strange shape. And some of those titles, imo, fail because the writers tried too hard to make it work.
** Two of my favorites are from Rolling Thunder:
1) "Somebody once said that teenagers should be raised in a barrel and fed through the bunghole, then decanted when they're twenty. I should know; I admit it, I was a prime candidate for encooperage...until recently."
2) SPOILERISH: "I'm going to miss my home, the Red Planet. But now I'm between planets. Now it's time for the stars."